Heliconia latispatha inflorescences
Heliconia, derived from the Greek word
helikonios, is a genus of about 100 to 200
species of flowering plants native to the
tropical Americas and the Pacific Ocean
islands west to Indonesia. Common names for
the genus include lobster-claws, wild
plantains or false bird-of-paradise. The
last term refers to their close similarity
to the bird-of-paradise flowers (Strelitzia).
Collectively, these plants are also simply
referred to as heliconias.
It is the sole genus of the family
Heliconiaceae, but was formerly included in
the family Musaceae. The APG system of 1998,
and its successor, the APG II system of
2003, confirms the Heliconiaceae as distinct
and places them in the order Zingiberales,
in the commelinid clade of monocots.
The leaves of these plants are 15-300 cm
(6 in-10 ft) long, oblong, growing opposite
one another on non-woody petioles often
longer than the leaf, often forming large
clumps with age. Their flowers are produced
on long, erect or drooping panicles, and
consist of brightly colored waxy bracts,
with small true flowers peeping out from the
bracts. The growth habit of heliconias is
similar to Canna, Strelitzia, and bananas,
to which they are related.
Uses and ecology
Heliconias are grown for the florist's trade
and as landscape plants. The flower of H.
psittacorum (Parrot Heliconia) is especially
distinctive, its greenish-yellow flowers
with black spots and red bracts reminding of
the bright plumage of parrots.
Several cultivars and hybrids have been
selected for garden planting, including:
H. psittacorum × H. spathocircinata, both
species of South America, mainly Brazil
H. × rauliniana = H. marginata (Venezuela) ×
H. bihai (Brazil)
H. chartacea cv. 'Sexy Pink'
Heliconias are an important food source
for forest hummingbirds, especially the
hermits (Phathornithinae), some of which –
such as the Rufous-breasted Hermit (Glaucis
hirsuta) – also use the plant for nesting.
The Honduran White Bat (Ectophylla alba)
also lives in tents it makes from heliconia